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Frequently Asked Questions About Stephen Foster

 

Every year the Center for American Music is contacted with thousands of reference questions pertaining to Stephen Foster. Below are some of the most common questions we receive. Follow the links in the questions to read the answers:

 

When and where was Stephen Foster born?

 

When and how did Stephen Foster die?

 

Where is Stephen Foster buried?

 

Where is his original house?

 

Who were his parents? Did he have brothers and sisters?

 

Did Stephen Foster marry?

 

Did Stephen Foster have any children?

 

How many songs did Foster write? Did he write...?

 

What books should I read to find out more about Foster? Where can I find them?

 

Were there any movies about Stephen Foster? Where can I find them?

 

Where can I get recordings of Stephen Foster's music?

 

Am I allowed to perform or record his songs, or publish his lyrics?

 

May I use photos from your website for my website/publication?

 

Was Stephen Foster an alcoholic?

 

Was Stephen Foster from the South?

 

Was Stephen Foster gay?

 

I have an old book/piece-of-sheet-music by/about Foster; how much is it worth?

 

I think I might be related to Foster, how do I verify it?

 

How much money did Foster make from his songs?

 

Why did he die so poor?

 

Was Stephen Foster a racist?

 

Why aren't Foster's songs sung in the schools anymore?

 

What other Memorials are there to Stephen Foster?

 

What has made Foster's music so popular?

 

When and where was Stephen Foster born?

 

Foster was born in Lawrenceville, PA on July 4, 1826.

 

When and how did Stephen Foster die?

 

Foster died in Bellevue Hospital in New York City on January 13, 1864. In his biography My Brother Stephen, Morrison Foster describes his death as follows, "In January 1864, while at the American Hotel, he was taken with ague and fever. After two or three days he arose, and while washing himself fainted and fell across the wash basin, which broke and cut a gash in his neck and face. He lay there insensible and bleeding until discovered by the chambermaid who was bringing the towel he had asked for to the room. She called for assistance and he was placed in bed again. On recovering his senses he asked that he be sent to a hospital. Accordingly he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. He was so much weakened by fever and loss of blood that he did not rally. On 13th of January he died peacefully and quietly..."

 

Where is Stephen Foster buried?

 

His grave is in Allegheny Cemetery, in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh.

 

Where is his original house?

 

Stephen Foster was born in a "White Cottage" located at 3600 Penn Avenue in what is now the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. The original house is no longer standing, but a historical marker is at the site.

 

Who were his parents? Did he have brothers and sisters?

 

Parents: William Barclay Foster, Sr. and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster Siblings: Ann Eliza (d. infancy), Charlotte Susanna, Ann Eliza, William, Jr. (d. infancy, replaced by William, Sr.'s, son of the same name), Henry, Henrietta, Dunning, Morrison, James (d. infancy).

 

Did Stephen Foster marry?

 

Yes, he married Jane Denny MacDowell (December 10, 1829 - January 3, 1903) on July 22, 1850.

 

Did Stephen Foster have any children?

 

Yes, one daughter, Marion (April 18, 1851 - July 9, 1935). Marion supported herself as a piano teacher in Pittsburgh.

 

How many songs did Foster write? Did he write...?

 

Foster wrote 286 works in less than 20 years: 156 songs with piano accompaniment, 27 hymns, 5 piano pieces, 74 instrumental works and arrangements, 19 resetting of his songs for guitar accompaniment, 2 translations (from French and German), and 3 new lyrics to pre-existing melodies. For a complete listing of Stephen Foster's songs go here or consult The Complete Works of Stephen C. Foster A Critical Edition (full bibliographic information for this book can be found here).

 

What books should I read to find out more about Foster? Where can I find them?

 

For the best written resources on Stephen Foster please visit our bibliography. While most of these books are out of print, many should be available through your local library or might be able to be purchased at our giftshop. Additionally, copies may be available through a used book dealer (search the Advanced Book Exchange by title to see if anyone in the U.S. is currently selling the book you are interested in) and, occasionally, a Foster biography or songbook will show up on ebay.com.

 

Were there any movies about Stephen Foster? Where can I find them?

 

Three major motion pictures about Stephen Foster have been made to date. Among them are Swanee River (Twentieth Century Fox, 1939) starring Don Ameche, Andrea Leeds, and Al Jolson; Harmony Lane (Mascot Pictures, 1935) starring Douglass Montgomery and Elizabeth Meehan; and I Dream of Jeanie (Republic Pictures, 1952) starring Bill Shirley and Eileen Christy.In addition to these fictional biopics, PBS's "American Experience" did a one hour program on Foster in 2001.

 

Where can I get recordings of Stephen Foster's music?

 

We sell some recordings of Foster's music at our Gift Shop. Most major music stores should also be able to order specific Foster recordings that are still in print.

 

Am I allowed to perform or record Foster's songs, or publish his lyrics?

 

All of Foster's songs, in his original arrangements, are considered public domain and thus may be performed, recorded, or published without permission. However, any other composer's arrangements of Foster's songs may still be under copyright. You would need to contact the last known publisher to find out for certain.

 

May I use photos from your website for my website/publication?

 

All photos are property of the Center for American Music and require written permission and fees in order to be used. For more information please visit our Rights and Reproductions page.

 

Was Stephen Foster an alcoholic?

 

Opinions vary as to what role alcohol played in Foster's life. While he did drink, he was not the mythic bum in a Bowery gutter some have portrayed him to be nor did he 'drink himself to death'. For more information on common myths about Stephen Foster visit our Myths About Foster page.

 

Was Stephen Foster from the South?

 

No. Stephen Foster spent the majority of his adult life in Pittsburgh, PA. As a child he visited Ohio and Augusta, Kentucky, and he attended boarding school in Northern Pennsylvania. From 1847 to 1849/1850 he lived in Cincinnati and in 1853 to 1854 and 1860 to 1864 he lived in New York City. In February 1852 he took a month long Mississippi River cruise to New Orleans, his only trip to the deep south. He never visited the Suwannee River. For more information on common myths about Stephen Foster please visit our Myths About Foster page.

 

Was Stephen Foster gay?

 

There is no evidence indicating that Foster was homosexual. For more information on common myths about Stephen Foster please visit our Myths About Foster page.

 

I have an old book/piece-of-sheet-music by/about Stephen Foster; how much is it worth?

 

The easiest way to find out the value of a piece of sheet music or a book is to search the Advanced Book Exchange to see what the average price is that a rare book dealer is offering the piece for (make sure you search under both title and year). Keep in mind that the condition of the piece is a major factor in determining its price; most sheet music in good condition is worth between $15 and $20.

 

We are frequently contacted by people who believe they have a signed copy of Stephen Foster's sheet music in their possession. Many of Foster's songs were printed with a reproduction of Foster's signature etched on the plate. Unfortunately, this is merely a reproduction of his signature, and not considered an original signed copy.

 

We are always willing to examine purported Foster artifacts and manuscripts for authentication purposes. While we are always interested in acquiring things that are not currently held in our collections, we have a very limited acquisition budget and rely heavily on donations and gifts. If you are looking for a home for your collection of Foster or American sheet music, we would be thrilled to consider adding it to our collection or to help aid you in locating another library that would be an appropriate recipient for your gift. Unfortunately, it is against University policy for us to appraise items.

 

I think I might be related to Foster, how do I verify it?

 

The best resource for genealogical information on the Foster family is available in Evelyn Foster Morneweck's book The Chronicles of Stephen Foster' s Family.The two volume book has been scanned and is available as part of the University of Pittsburgh's Digital Research Library.

 

How much money did Foster make from his songs?

 

Complete records of Foster's income do not exist, but for the period between 1849 and 1860 (Stephen's most productive years) he made $15,091.08, an average of $1,371.92 cents a year (according to the Consumer Price Index, less than $25,000 a year in 1999 value).

 

Why did he die so poor?

 

While in the late twentieth-century there are many legal safeguards in place and organizations, such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, to protect artists and their intellectual property, no such organizations or safeguards existed during Foster's time. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after Foster's death; radio, 66 years): no system of publishers and agents vying to sell new songs; no "performing rights" fees from restaurant singers or minstrels or theater musicians or concert recitalists; no way of earning money except through a 5-to-10 percent royalty on sheet-music sales of his own editions by his original music publisher, or through the outright purchase of a song by a publisher. He earned nothing for most other arrangers settings of his songs. There was no way to know whether he was being paid for all the copies his publisher sold; there were no attorneys specializing in authors' rights. Copyright law protected far less than it does today: Foster earned nothing for other arrangers' settings of his songs, for broadside printings of his lyrics, or other publishers' editions of his music. In today's music industry he would be worth millions of dollars a year, but on January 13, 1864, he died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket.

 

Was Stephen Foster a racist?

 

Certainly Foster was a product of a society in which derogatory images of African-Americans pervaded almost every aspect of social discourse, from ordinary conversation to literature to visual and aural images and portrayals. While Foster never wrote lyrics as blatant as those for "Jump Jim Crow" or "Zip Coon," the dialect images of Blacks in some of his earlier songs is indeed troubling. And while fewer than 20 of Foster's nearly 200 songs fall in the "blackface" category, most of these were extremely popular. Foster eventually eliminated dialect from his songs, and never allowed cartoons of slaves on his authorized sheet music, although this did occur on pirated editions beyond his control. Some of his songs, notably "My Old Kentucky Home" which in the 1850s fanned the flames for abolition in productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in later reinterpretations became vehicles for virulently derogatory images of African Americans typical of the post-Reconstructionist (1880s-90s) and "coon song" and lynch-law eras. It is dangerous to view Foster through those later social standards, but it is dangerous as well to ignore their effect on subsequent impressions. Foster was far ahead of other songwriters of his day in bestowing a measure of dignity to black subjects as well as white (consider the affectionate portrayals in "Nelly Was a Lady" and "Old Black Joe"). He had no control over how his songs were performed by the minstrels. Instead he wrote for the audiences at home, and hoped the minstrels would make the songs popular enough that their sheet music would sell. Still, some of the images and language contained in Foster's songs are troubling, both then and now. His body of music is like a ship that has collected barnacles on its long journey. His music has become encrusted with various interpretations and public meaning. Ken Emerson writes in his Introduction to Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, "Stephen Foster is at the heart of the tangled, tortuous interchange between whites and blacks that both dishonors America and yet distinguishes its culture worldwide." Later in the book, Emerson confirms that despite its controversy, Foster's music is part of who we are: "Foster is so absorbed in the air that we breath and in the airs that we hum, in our blood and in our assumptions, that we seldom think of him. Yet an America without Foster is as unthinkable as an America without Whitman or Twain, without Louis Armstrong or George Gershwin, without rock 'n' roll, without racism, or without those instances of amazing grace when, if only for an instant, we transcend racism."

 

Why aren't Foster's songs sung in the schools anymore?

 

Removing Foster from the context of his times has led to many misinterpretations of his songs. While standardized versions of his lyrics exist eliminating those terms that would be considered inappropriate (and it is only in a very small number of Foster's songs that the inappropriate words appear), people continue to associate Foster with a culture that permitted slavery and advocated a racist, segregated society. Some schools do continue to use Foster's songs as part of their music education, but there are many educators who shy away from the songs out of fear of what their association with them could be interpreted to mean and out of reluctance to contextual the songs for their students and their audience. Renewed interest in Foster and awareness of his role in both American music history and American cultural history may help to bring him back into the classroom where his work would not only be exposed to new generations of music students, but might provoke important dialogue about the way our understanding of language changes over time.

 

What other Memorials are there to Stephen Foster?

 

For a complete listing of Memorials to Stephen Foster by state, see Stephen Collins Foster: A Guide to Research by Calvin Elliker (complete bibliographic info is available here). Included in Elliker's list are hundreds of sculptures, schools, library collections, bridges, state songs, commemorative days, hotels, dissertations, articles, state parks, House Resolutions, highways, streets, historic markers, buildings, bars, stained glass windows, art objects, stamps, pullman cars, commemorative medals, and flowers all named to honor Foster. In addition to the Stephen Foster Memorial in Pittsburgh, there are also major Memorials at Bardstown, Kentucky (My Old Kentucky Home State Park) and White Springs, Florida (Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center on the banks of the Suwanee River).

 

What has made Foster's music so popular?

 

Pittsburgh was a growing industrial city that attracted workers from many ethnic backgrounds. Foster studied what he heard there, distinctive and separate styles of song: American minstrel songs, German art-songs, Irish melodies, Scottish ballads, English pleasure garden songs, Italian opera, and African-American religious music. With the intent of appealing to the widest possible audience, he selected the compatible elements of these different styles and created his own new style of song, familiar enough that each cultural group could find it pleasant, yet altered enough to be considered different and, thus, distinctly American because it had existed nowhere else in the world before. This familiar sounding melodic style made Foster's songs popular among a variety of ethnic and cultural groups in the United States. They were sung on stages and introduced rapidly to massive numbers of listeners. New immigrants identified with them as a way of sounding "American." Slaves sang them and took to heart their themes of longing for a home of their own and a reunited family. They became the first cultural export of the United States. Sailors quickly carried the songs to foreign ports, and publishers in Europe capitalized on this attractive (free) material; travelers reported hearing Foster's tune on the streets of foreign cities within weeks of their publication in America. Half a century later, East Asian music educators brought back home with them samples of western music--including Foster's songs--which have since permeated their cultures through generations of school children. The images and themes that recur in Foster's own song texts reflect his sensitivity to deeply felt human values: the sanctity of family, the comfort of friends and loved ones as one grows old, the necessity of determining one's own future, the right to live in dignity and die in peace. Millions of people throughout the world over many generations have sung and shared those images, images which continue to reflect are values today. And in the majority of his best-known songs, it is blacks living under slavery who voices these dreams and values for all of human kind.


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last updated February 24, 2014